One of problems that I think both middlebrow criticism and academic scholarship focusing on videogames faces is how to talk about authorship. Andrew Sarris' famous importation of the French "auteur theory" into American film criticism in the late 1950s proposed that the author of a film is the director, and that directors should be encouraged to conceptualize themselves as such and seize authorial control over a film. Besides giving generations of academic film theorists something to attack, Sarris' intervention also had a profound influence on mainstream film criticism and eventually became a common part of how most movie audiences perceive the author function in films.
We talk a lot about "designers" as a group, and attribute some authorial intention to them in aggregate (as in Richard's recent posting to Terra Nova). At the same time, avid gamers and game critics are very aware that game creation is a structurally complex and expensive process, and that even relatively low-ranking programmers and artists may be effectively authorially responsible for particular features or images in a game.
Who is the author of a game? How should we speak of authorship?
One of the reasons I bring this up is that discussion by gamers and game critics of the recent X-Box game Fable (which I have yet to play) frequently describes it as a "Peter Molyneux game". This seems right and proper to me, based on the criticisms (and appreciations) I'm hearing of the game. Games that Peter Molyneux works on seem to me to have a very distinctive character, much as films by John Ford, Orson Wells or Stanley Kubrick seem appropriately described by Sarris' idea of the auteur. Personally I'm not particularly enamored of Molyneux games: they always feature a singular kind of genius in one game mechanic or design concept amid an otherwise lousy, boring, thinly designed game. But I know when I'm playing a Molyneux game: they're very particular.
With some other videogames, it is more customary to talk about a particular design company as the collective author. I have a very clear sense of what a "Bioware" game is, or what a "Blizzard" game is, what a "Rockstar" game is, even when I may know something about the individual designers employed by those companies. There's a house style that has an authorial character.
With some games, it's not at all clear to me how to talk about the authorship. This is particularly true for massively-multiplayer persistent world games. Who is the auteur of Star Wars: Galaxies? It isn't merely the size and complexity of the game that complicates that question: it is that the designers of SWG (and most MMOGs) often work to obscure authorship, in a way somewhat reminiscent of bureaucracies, so as to diffuse responsibility for the game's functioning. This makes sense in many ways: it is the difference between publishing a finished text and managing a long-term institution. It still poses analytic problems, however. Who is the "author" of the Smuggler profession in SWG? Raph Koster? Sony Online Entertainment? The designer named "GreenMarine"? George Lucas? Han Solo?
And of course with modding, authorship is still more complex. Who is the author of the great, sprawling domain of games connected to Half-Life or Morrowind? The audience as whole?
What seems clear to me is that middlebrow games criticism cannot function without some reference to authors: a critic needs to know who to blame or praise, how to assign and imagine intentionality, how to accessibly discuss the intertextual relations between games. Academic scholarship about videogames can draw on a less accessible but powerful theoretical apparatus that permits scholars to deflect or defer reference to the author function or perhaps even reject it altogether. I'm not sure that's wise or desirable: it tends to accept and enshrine a lack of knowledge and curiosity about the processes by which a videogame takes shape, an absence which has sometimes hobbled academic analysis of popular culture in general.
Are there really different types of authorship with contemporary videogames? How should we categorize, if we should? What do we need to know to talk about authors (or auteurs)?